Reservations about the Common Core

A recent conversation of Partnership fellows, staff, and school leaders raised the question: Is the Common Core what learning is about, or is there a greater context to consider?

Most of what’s available about the Common Core (CC) are put out by its creators or by folks who feel its domination of the learning agenda is inevitable, so it’s challenging to find any vigorous debate about it.  What follows below are some thoughts, through the lens of school redesign, on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills‘ publication P21 Common Core Toolkit.

On the up-side
  • This is not about filling in bubble tests.  CC seems to be headed toward interdisciplinary, complex thinking.  This may be a useful, direct affront to the content-centered thinking that dominates some schools, teachers, and curricula.  It may lead to a more project-based curriculum.
  • Many of the best content-centered and instruction-centered English teachers in the state, including some who are working on/with CC believe that it will be about thinking and applying knowledge, that among all the directions the nation could have gone within NCLB, this is probably close to the best.  (The tests will determine whether that’s ultimately true.)
  • The Partnership for 21st Century Skills’ 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity/innovation) seem like a good framework for proficiency-based learning, especially as broken down starting on page 37, particularly when combined with the 21st century themes (health, media literacy, enviro literacy, etc.) featured in the document.
It could be worse.  I am a product of a liberal arts education and believe in its value, at least for me.  But as I read the document, I started wondering whether it had been put out by CC as a rationalization, where 21st century skills are really just a “spoonful of sugar [that] helps the medicine go down.”
Who is this document really about?
  • It’s self-promotional, referring to itself as “excellent” in several places.  This isn’t a non-biased, peer reviewed study.  (Are there any yet, or is adoption of the CC one giant cultural act of faith, and if so, in whom?)
  • Another indication of self-promotion is that this document comes from CC folks first, not the 21st Century Partnership.  It isn’t backward design (planning with 21st century skills in mind), but retrofitting to address a need and perhaps a criticism.
  • The excellent list of 21st century themes elaborated near the end is almost an afterthought, tacked on.  CC seems to simply say, “Oh yes, these are good too, you should try them,” which is naive when the curriculum and school day are going to be packed with more test prep disguised as teaching.
Core (ahem…) reservations about the Common Core
  • It’s a testing regimen.  Testing exhausts schools and is about punishment under NCLB.  Not inspiring, and not pro-kid or pro-‘what really counts in learning.’
  • CC appears to be financed with help from some big business/foundations; ‘follow the money’ is always good advice.
  • It’s focused on college and career readiness.  In my view, it’s better that this testing agenda is working backwards from colleges, rather than from old-school business thinking.  However, it misses the notion that school should be about educating human beings, that learning ought to be an end in itself.
  • The CC standards are all based on grade level, ending multi-aging in many elementary schools; this is reductive and assumes that all kids develop at about the same pace; this simply isn’t true and works against creating more authentic, multi-age learning environments.  It’s test prep driving classroom organization, testing trumping what we know about human development and emotional needs.
  • The tests haven’t been developed yet (I don’t think); til they are, I admit it’s hyperbole to say CC will do one thing or another, but everyone needs to share that understanding.
Reservations with a Winooski and Burlington lens: community, framing, and motivation
  • Emphasis on the CC might impede forming a sense of coherence at the schools this year and add to a sense of teachers’ being overwhelmed.
  • It seems artificial that the rainbow on page 4 pulls out career skills and technology skills from the central band of learning and innovation.  We fail to integrate them at our peril.
  • One refrain leading up to the CC is that “this is coming, so we just have to do it.”  When we start from a defeatist, defeated sense of obligation and lack of control, whether as students or adults, our energy and outcomes are inherently compromised.  We should be seeking a greater framework that will inspire, motivate, and lead kids and adults to do their best work.
Reservations with a Partnership for Change lens: assumptions and oversights
  • Proficiency: Some on-line critics say that the CC standards are too vague, but in truth, it seems that there are still too many fragmented standards for teachers to “cover,” and coverage is the opposite of deep, meaningful learning.
  • Personalization: Saying “everybody needs…” is the opposite of personalization.  This is about a liberal arts curriculum, which benefits many people but alienates many other young people from education.  For example: pardon this English teacher’s heterodoxy, but I’m ambivalent when CC tests and measures reading lengthy texts.  It’s great practice for writing a thesis or being a professor (the college readiness bias), and those aren’t bad things, but I fear it may be another move toward the tremendous waste of capacity and energy whenever one group decides that “everybody needs” to do the same thing, without regard to individual differences, interests, desires, and motivations.
  • PPBL/Community Based: The sample projects for classrooms aren’t real!  They’re textbook problems.  Already motivated kids might plunge into them, but ultimately, this asks kids to produce things that don’t really matter to anyone besides the teacher.  Good projects have kids doing real work for real situations and real people in the actual community.
  • Learning Environments/Youth Engagement: Ultimately, this is about teacher-directed learning, not about students’ passions and true ‘multiple pathways.’ NCLB and CC leave the authentic person in each student behind.
  • This whole document assumes a conventional school with conventional teacher roles, minimal student voice, no family involvement, no attention to non-traditional and marginalized students, and no meaningful community involvement.  The Partnership for Change lens can help us see what’s not there and gain a more focused perspective on how this doesn’t align with the new approach to inclusive schooling we’re committed to creating.
In sum, Common Core should not be the driver or context in which schools conduct their business, as testing and standards are not what connect with the essence of humanity. It’s only when we are able to reach a more essential place in our students and in teachers that sustainable change and deep learning and motivation take place.
For further investigation
This CC-related document is self-promotional.  I did some quick searching to get the other side, though it was hard to find well-articulated philosophical counterarguments.  The train has left the station, so to speak, as most legislatures adopted CC post haste.  There was little debate and only an assumed consensus.  (Who could be against college and jobs, right?)  Still, here are a few critics of CC.
The Washington Post published an article articulating 8 problems with CC
This is an op-ed on what we lose by doing CC
A critique by Professor Stephen Krashen linked through testing critic and former Reagan assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch.
According to fellow Jill Jacobelli, “Stephen Krashen is currently a leading expert in the field of linguistics, specializing in theories of language acquisition and development including the widely adopted comprehensible input and affective filter theories.”

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